One of the most poignant and distressing animated features ever made, 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful film about the human condition, youth, death, and war. Directed and written by Isao Takahata, colleague of Hayao Miyazaki, this movie is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name written by Akiyuki Nosaka. The novel was written in part as a form of confession and apology to the author’s sister, as she perished due to malnutrition in Japan in 1945.
Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies does not manipulate or take easy roads to sentimentality. It stands, instead, as one of the most astonishingly human animated films ever made. The tragedy and the sadness arrive naturally, guided by the subtle hand of Takahata and the spectacular animation that is synonymous with Studio Ghibli. Interestingly, the original Japanese theatrical release of the picture was accompanied by Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. Grave of the Fireflies is also the only Studio Ghibli film that the Walt Disney Company does not have distribution rights for.
The movie takes place during the end of World War II in Japan and we know how it ends before it begins. We are introduced to two children living in the port city of Kobe: a young teenage boy named Seita and his sister, likely about five years old, named Setsuko. Their father serves in the Japanese Navy and their mother has fallen victim to the horrors of war. As we are introduced to these characters, their entire world is vanishing. American bombers drop canisters of napalm on the feeble wood and paper houses of Japanese cities and the residents have no resort but to flee. There is no way to fight the fires, no way to resist the ruin.
Seita and Setsuko are taken in by an aunt, but the relationship is strained as she begins to begrudge the two children. She resents having to feed them and look after them, so eventually the pair departs to a cave where they believe they can live. Seita attempts to take care of his sister, all the while trying to come to terms with the war and with the fate of their parents. As unalterable tragedy draws ever near, we see the war, the bombings and the horror from the eyes of these two children.
Grave of the Fireflies is a kind of poetry; it is a piece of art. Takahata’s film tells a relatively plain story of survival on its face, yet beneath the surface are heart-rending moments of nature, humanity, and love. The fireflies, for instance, create a sense of profundity and sentiment. As fireflies have particularly short life-spans, their continuation sorrowfully parallels the existence of these children of war. There is impermanence and nothing is everlasting. Regardless of the loveliness of things, life and death eventually has its way.
Despite this briefness of life, Takahata ensures that we remember the bright colours and the mirth. Take, for instance, the film’s closing sequences. Sure to bring a well of unmanageable tears, we are shown scenes of play and elation with Setsuko. She frolics, conceivably unaware of the horror, lunacy, and hopelessness with which she lives. One wonders if children are oblivious to war and violence or if they have, on some level anyway, a sense of understanding.
The animation is beautiful and affectionate. Takahata knows how to hold shots and elongate sequences so that we can value them. His colours are strong but not overwhelming, and the details are unbelievable. He directs with a clear-cut style, leaving the melodrama to the soap operas and granting his audience the one thing they need to digest the poignancy and gravity of this tale: time.
For those new to anime, Grave of the Fireflies is perhaps the one film that will change the way “cartoons” are looked at. It is as potent an effort as Schindler’s List and contains scenes of such colossal sadness and anguish that a box of tissues ought to come with the picture. This is a truly special film, marking a cinematic milestone in which minimalism triumphs over loud effects and a truly extraordinary human story is told with the power of animation.